The Handmaid's Tale: 3x11 Liars.
It’s been a very, very long three years, and there have been many moments throughout those three seasons of The Handmaid’s Tale where I’ve felt that the show is deliberately trying to grind us, the viewers, down, to make a point about how grim Gilead is and by association, how awful it is that there are tendencies in the world that are attempting to achieve a real-world Gilead. Keeping all of that in mind, Liars is to an extent almost a wish-fulfilment episode, and more so than any other previous moment of triumph (because it was hard to see Emily’s attack and the explosion at the centre in that light, considering how much life was lost, and where it lead Emily after).
Let’s follow Serena and Fred to start off with. After Serena’s suggestion that Fred is going nowhere with his attempts to leverage Nichole to achieve a treaty with Canada, she contacts her old friend, honeytrap Mark Tuello (who will always be Joel from Parenthood to me), and they make their way towards a secret meeting place at the border. Before that, Serena says goodbye to Rita – a more heartfelt goodbye than you might have expected, from the way that their relationship started – in which Rita asks Serena if she is certain that returning Nichole to Gilead is the best thing to do. Serena takes that question very seriously, as we will see soon.
It’s an interesting road trip because it once again strips down the Waterfords to who they supposedly were before all of that. They constantly attempt to get back to that moment before, especially Serena, who once again evokes their simple apartment above the bakery. It’s almost a classical relationship moment – they are on a holiday, and they are falling into the holiday trap of believing that this version of them that is without responsibilities, without the day-to-day burdens of Gilead, is somehow more true or pure than who they are in Gilead, and have been this whole time. There is a lot of longing here for a different time that escalates when they reach a charming house in the woods in which a large family lives happily without the trappings of modern life and nothing but each other’s company. It is the kind of beautiful idyll that is rooted so deeply in the American imagination, and it is probably also one of the things that lives prominently in the Gileadan ideal of the good life – simple people, far removed from the corrupting influence of the city, stripped of the influences of progress, and therefore somehow more real than anyone else could ever hope to be. It’s the same kind of fake fantasy that makes people chase wilderness, only to perish in it – because it’s impossible to outrun identity.
The only community here that matters is that of family, and there is no more outside world or outside influence to consider. Fred and Serena take off into the woods, debating if they could ever live such a life, and Fred insists that this life, with Nichole, is all he wants – that he can exist without the power and the influence. But – I don’t think that Serena buys this for a second. She buys the idea of it, the fantasy that the man she married all those years ago could be content with this simple life, but there is nothing that she can base this hope on. Remember that the first time we met him, he was so obsessed with showcasing his power to June, and how much freedom it bought him in a place like Gilead. He flaunted his power, and he has been following High Commander Winslow like a puppy hoping that it could buy him a place in an even higher position of power. He’s all but given up on Nichole, and sees her as a means to an end to achieve a more influential position in the Gileadan regime. And Serena knows all this, and she knows that he sold what is most important to her to create a world in which a man like him can be powerful (because remember how much more naturally gifted Serena is for all of this, and how much she loved writing before Gilead took that away from her). Fred is a selfish, power-hungry man, and worse than that, he’s not even very good at any of those things. To think that taking him away from the corrupting influence of power would achieve the nostalgic beauty of their first years of marriage is a mirage. Fred goes as far as to admit to Serena that he has always known that he is the reason why they couldn’t have children before Serena’s injury, that throughout all those years of going through the ceremony (remember how June’s predecessor killed herself because of what Fred did to her?) were for absolutely naught.
I don’t think Serena believes that this man who she used to love is capable of putting this idea of a family before his ambitions. Which is why I think that what happens at the end of the episode isn’t a complete surprise to her.
The whole scene plays out amazingly. They meet up with Agent Truello, who says he will take them to a secret meeting place. They drive and drive, further than what seems reasonable, through the beautiful landscape. And it befits Fred that he never truly questions it, that he mostly blames Mark for the inconvenience of it, or misstating it as a short trip. Of course, in Fred’s imagination, Gilead would stretch forever, because he hasn’t much concerned himself with the limits of Gilead. Except, as it turns out, they have quietly slipped across that bloody, bloody border, that has cost so many lives, into a legal space in which Fred is arrested as a war criminal. The thing about holidays is that you can never outrun your own bullshit for more than a few hours, it always catches up with you, and place doesn’t determine identity. It’s hard to read Serena’s face, but I think she knew that this would happen, and she lost all faith that she could be closer to Nichole by any other means.
Elsewhere, very firmly back in Gilead, there’s June, grappling with the revelation that there are so many Marthas happy to help. 52 children, and only the logistics of freeing them to figure out. It seems like an impossible feat to accomplish, especially with the crackdown, but Lawrence is no longer in a position to argue, especially after June convinces Eleanor to lay down a gun she aims at her husband for raping June. Lawrence knows that the clock is ticking, that this world he has created which has underestimated the importance of mental health and the maternal instinct is coming for him and his wife.
He’s enough of a coward (of course he is) to try and run away, leaving June with figuring out how to still accomplish her plan (after she goes through the trouble of convincing a group of Marthas who must be higher up in Mayday that her plan isn’t going to interfere with one of their “shipments”). But he returns, telling her that he can no longer organise trucks because he no longer has the codes necessary to pass the checkpoints. Gilead has turned against him, and has finally turned into a cage even for the man who has so far eluded its influence.
June realises the only way to do this is to use the Marthas’ transport plane, which is bringing some kind of delivery into Gilead (perhaps it’s explosives, seeing as June helped to smuggle that chemist out), as a vessel for the children on the return flight. She has Lawrence take her to Jezebels, so she can talk to the Marthas’ contact person there. Billy the bartender is hesitant to participate in the deal, even for all the art in the Lawrences basement (you’d imagine it would be hard to trade that art for anything these days), and just as June is about to leave, she runs into High Commander Winslow.
Has there ever been a character who more perfectly impersonates the kind of toxic masculinity that Gilead empowers? Where Fred is thin and pallid, Winslow is hulking, a man aware of his physical power and how intimidating it is. Nobody would enjoy hurting June, who stands for what he despises, more. It’s a slow escalation, from where Winslow seems to be enjoying claiming something that he thinks is Fred’s, to June attempting to see this as just another time where she leaves her body to become an uninterested observer, to the moment when June snaps and can’t do this one more time. They struggle, and somehow, June gets the upper hand and overwhelms him. And then, when he tries to humanise himself in the wrongest way possible, reminding her that he stole all those children from other women, she finishes the job and kills him.
It’s the closest that The Handmaid’s Tale has ever come to wish-fulfilment, and I’m pretty sure we’ll pay for it sooner rather than later. June slays a monster, and afterwards, falls into the competent hands of Marthas (one of which is from the cages that Lawrence made her choose from, someone whose life she saved by making a choice that sent others to the Colonies), who know all too well how to clean up messes. They steam the carpet, they remove bloodied sheets, they dispose of the body, like it’s the easiest thing of housekeeping. And somewhere in there, you get the sense that maybe the clock is ticking for Gilead.
Those driving scenes! Fred giving Serena the keys, as a taste of freedom, which really mostly serves as a reminder of how much Gilead has taken away from her! The spooky horror film music when Mark leads them across the border!
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